One year ago I left for the hospital to have my face altered with facial feminization surgery (read more here). My mom was in the car with me, my husband following in his own vehicle because he had an unbreakable work commitment later that day (and the rest of the weekend). The weather had been cold but calm in the days leading up to this milestone morning, but this day was rainy and windy. It was a terrifying drive to start a terrifying day.
We arrived at the hospital at 5:30am. It was still dark, and the hospital was a ghost town, except for a security guard standing outside to direct surgery patients to the correct door. Before we reached the guard, we were approached by a pleading woman, holding out what looked like a driver’s license, accusing the hospital staff of unfairly keeping her out of the place. The guard urged us to dismiss her. We realized she was unbalanced and ranting. Ignoring my instinct to empathize, we passed her and continued into the building.
While waiting to be admitted, I nervously posted on Twitter and Facebook, trying to not think about what would soon happen to my face. Images of cut flesh…and blood…and pain…and loss of control and…
Checked in and waiting to get prepped. Trying to still my heart. So nervous!
— Daya Curley (@dayacurley) February 3, 2017
Soon I was in a gown with an IV, clearing my lungs with an albuterol inhaler. I was also instructed to spray Afrin into my nose to clear any congestion. These processes happened at a dizzying pace, but nothing could completely distract me from my anxiety.
I was misgendered a couple times by a very nice nurse, a stomach punch from a well-meaning person. Who you gonna believe (her brain presumably asked her), your eyes or that gender marker on the patient’s chart?! I hoped all the trauma I was about to endure would help me avoid this kind of thing in the future. The whole point of this is to be able to move more freely in the world without sticking out so much. But first I would have to survive the surgery.
Prepping for surgery
Mark and my mom looked tired and concerned. I’m sure they were scared. I looked to them with desperate eyes and they had no answers. Mark held my hand and took a couple pics.
I was visited by my surgical team. I had met Dr. Kleinberger at my consultation, but I had not yet met Dr. Shih. They were both bright-eyed and smiling, which helped. What helped even more was chatting with my anesthesia technician. He listened to my concerns and assured me he wouldn’t leave me the entire time, wouldn’t even look away from the monitor displaying my vitals. He explained how he would be able to determine if I was starting to wake or in pain, and what his response would be. He described his goal as creating the softest possible take off and landing of a jumbo jet. I believed him, and more than anything else, his attention made me less panicky.
And then I was being rolled away, prompting quick teary goodbyes. Once in the operating room, there was a slew of folks bustling around, but my anesthesia technician called out to let me know he was there too. Without much fanfare or warning, I lost consciousness.
The surgery lasted a little more than 7 hours. I became aware again while coughing and hearing instructions in the recovery room. I dropped back into sleep. When I woke again my mom was present, holding my hand. “Did everything go OK?!,” I asked. “Everything went fine,” she said.
It was a very tough night, and not just for me. My poor mom had only a bedside chair the whole night. She also had no food, as the cafeteria was not open on the weekend. This is something we should have been told in advance. At one point she lay her head on the side of my bed in an attempt to sleep. Throughout the night she helped me chase down nurses for new ice packs and pain medication. After a few hours we learned we would have to ask multiple times for anything in order to actually receive it. I drank ice water through a straw and kept ice packs on my head and face, balanced on the bridge of my nose. The next day I would find out that both the straw and that particular use of the ice packs were not supposed to happen, both potentially able to cause problems. But we were doing as we were told by the Kaiser night nurse, who explained many times that she normally works in recovery and not on the floor. I assume she used this as some kind of excuse for her poor performance. She was friendly but didn’t instill a lot of confidence in us.
It was all a blur, right up until my catheter was removed painfully. Then time slowed as I waited to pee on my own…get my meds sent up…and get the hell out of there. I was finally released around 5:30pm.
Stressful drive but home at last
We still had the drive home, my mom behind the wheel, with the setting sun in our eyes. She was unfamiliar with the roads and I was not much help in the passenger seat with my face bundled in bandages and my head swimming in oxycodone. We took a wrong exit and ended up in downtown Oakland. Some yelling and crying ensued (me, out of frustration) but we got back on track and made it home.
I found it tough to look at myself over the next couple weeks. My crazy swollen face gave no indication where it would settle, and my hair was so matted I couldn’t imagine how I would get it de-tangled again without pulling every last hair out by the roots. By the time my mom went back to Michigan, I had a stable schedule of feeding and icing my face. I found joy in pudding and peanut butter, not able to imagine what it would feel like to eat solid food again.
Where I am right now
One year in, my scalp is still numb and itches a lot of the time. There are places on my face (around my brow bone specifically) that are still sore to the touch, even while gently brushing makeup onto my face. The tips of my nose and chin are numb and tingle when touched. Obviously, it will take more than a year for my face to settle completely. If I’m honest, I wish my nose was a bit smaller, but in general I’m thrilled with the results. Facial surgery was the one thing I really wanted. It was also the thing I was 100% convinced I would never have the chance to do. I’m so grateful for the opportunity Kaiser gave me, and for the artistry of Drs Kleinberger and Shih. I still don’t know which procedures each of them did, but they work great as a team.
I’m still getting used to the difference in how I’m treated by the world in general these days. I can’t tell if people are friendlier because I’m less unusual-looking, or if it’s because I’m more outgoing now that I feel more comfortable. I suppose it’s a combination. Either way, I’m happy to be taking this journey. It was a profound reset in many ways and has allowed me to shed layers of insecurity and start to enjoy being in the world in ways I’ve always wanted but felt were out of my reach.
My vaginoplasty recovery is still presenting some issues, which are being treated. I also need a revision surgery for my urethra. In addition, I’ve decided to get mammaplasty. There’s a possibility we’ll be able to combine the revision and breast augmentation into one surgery. I’m hoping for that, and I hope it’s soon so I can get out from under the constant physical recovery. My procedures and recovery have dominated my life for a long time. I’m eager to see what the next phase of my life will be once all that time opens up for other pursuits. Mark and I want to travel, and we haven’t ridden a roller coaster in far too long! I need to ride some roller coasters!